Celebrating 10 years of community ownership of West Harris

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This is the text of a talk I gave at a Burns Supper held by the West Harris Trust on January 25th 2020 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of West Harris coming into community ownership. 

I’d like to thank the Trust for the invitation to come and speak at this evening’s event.  10 years of community ownership is a fantastic achievement and there’s much to celebrate in that time, which I’ll get on to shortly.

I must admit I was flattered and slightly surprised to be asked to speak to you this evening.  My first thought, when I got the invitation from Neil Campbell, was that David Cameron must be off the island this weekend.  It turns out that he is.  But I hope you’ll bear with me in any case!

As some of you know, I have long-standing family connections with Harris.  Both my late parents were Hearachs.  My father, Tormod, came from Finsbay and my mother, Mairi, was from Seilibost.  Neil and I share a connection in that she was our primary school teacher in Vatten Bridge in Skye, longer ago than we probably both care to remember!

I grew up in Skye and lived there until I was 16.   In 1985 my father, my brother and I moved back to Finsbay after my mother passed away.  All of our holidays before then had been spent on the croft there where my father was brought up.  As a kid I always felt that I had a sort of dual island nationality.  In Skye I was known as ‘Calum Hearach’ but as soon as I crossed the Minch, I transformed into ‘Calum Sgiathanach’, which is what my Harris relatives called me.

Much as I love Skye, let me confirm here that I’m a Hearach really!

Aside from my island credentials, perhaps another reason I’m speaking to you tonight relates to my day jobs.

Half of my working week is spent as policy director for Community Land Scotland, the representative organisation for community landowners, of which  –  I’m pleased to say – the West Harris Trust is a member.  So I spend quite a lot of time at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and elsewhere making the case for community land ownership and representing our members’ interests.

By a happy coincidence, Community Land Scotland is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year too, having also been set up in 2010, at a time when the political momentum for land reform in Scotland seemed to have all but disappeared.

You certainly couldn’t say that’s the case now.

The other half of my time is spent working with communities who are keen to follow in the footsteps of places like West Harris by taking the land where they live into their ownership.

In fact, I do quite a lot of that work with Duncan Macpherson, who’s also here tonight.  Duncan often uses West Harris as an example of what can be achieved by communities through ownership of their land, which is always well received and inspiring to the people we talk to.

It’s a real pleasure, therefore, to actually be here to talk about and celebrate what’s been achieved by the West Harris community over the last 10 years.

The story of community ownership in West Harris and elsewhere is – to my mind, at least – essentially one of enabling communities to take control of their own destinies.

Basically, it’s a story about power.  Who has it.  What they do with it.  And who they are accountable to.

But I’m conscious that the Trust’s is not the only birthday being celebrated this evening.  With that in mind, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider what Robert Burns had to say about Highland Lairds and the power they exerted over their tenants.

Quite a lot, as it turns out.  And none of it complimentary!

In the late 1700s the Highland’s landed elite were facing the unwelcome prospect of losing great swathes of their still economically useful tenantry who were keen to emigrate to the New World in search of better prospects.  That these emigrants would put a sizeable dent into Britain’s military recruitment was an unequally unwelcome development from the Lairds’ perspective.

It’s estimated that around 12,000 Highlanders emigrated between 1782 and 1803, the year that the Passenger Vessels Act was enacted to raise the cost of travel to North America far beyond the means of prospective Highland emigrants, under the pretext of regulating passenger vessels crossing the Atlantic.

Back in 1786, Burns penned ‘Address of Beelzebub’ upon learning of the landed gentry’s intention to ‘frustrate the design’ of some 500 Highlanders to emigrate from the estates of Macdonald of Glengary to Canada.

In ‘Address of Beelzebub’ Burns portrayed the Highland Lairds and Beelzebub – the poem’s narrator – as kindred spirits. Which gives you more than a hint of where his sympathies lay!

This short extract gives a flavour of his scathing view of the Lairds’ efforts to keep their tenants in their place.

 “An’ whare will ye get Howes and Clintons

To bring them to a right repentance

To cowe the rebel generation,

An’ save the honour o’ the nation?

They, an’ be damn’d! what right hae they

To meat, or sleep, or light o’ day?

Far less – to riches, pow’r, or freedom,

But what your lordship likes to gie them?”

Burns – it scarcely needs adding – wrote the poem before the pendulum had swung away from estate owners actively preventing their tenants leaving the land and towards forcibly clearing them from it.

Harris, of course, was no stranger to the Clearances.

In his book, ‘Harris in History and Legend’, Bill Lawson recounts the remorseless removal of the people from the west side by the notorious Donald Stewart.  He writes:

 “It was a bad day for Harris when Donald Stewart came to Luskintyre as a sheep farmer.  When he became Macleod [of Harris’s] factor nothing would do for him but that he would turn the whole of the machair side of Harris into sheep farms, and send the people away to Canada.  Scarista had already been cleared, but Stewart cleared [the Borves], and in 1838 evicted the last of the people from Seilibost”

Landlordism cleared these people without ceremony or compunction to make way for sheep and cold coin.  Many of them ended up in Finsbay in the Bays of Harris, squeezed onto overcrowded crofts or left as landless cottars to work on the kelp farm established there in the 1790s.

The injustice of that enforced displacement of the people echoes through the centuries in Reverend Alexander Davidson’s testimony to the Napier Commission when it convened in Obbe one spring day in 1883.  He said:

It is most unnatural that man should be chased away to make room for sheep and deer; that the land should lie uncultivated when men are perishing for lack of food.”

Three decades earlier, in 1852, the steamer Celt had travelled from Finsbay to Campbeltown to meet with the emigrant ship HMS Hercules before she set sail that December with 742 emigrants from Harris, North Uist and Skye, on a typhus-ridden voyage bound for Australia.

By then Harris was in the ownership of the Scotts of Dunmore.  In turn, they sold the island to Lord Leverhulme, the ‘Soap Man’, shortly after the end of the First World War.  Leverhulme sold it in lots in 1922 or thereabouts, creating the distinctive estate structure that exists in Harris to this day.

In the 1930s and 40s three of these new estates – in Scarista, Borve and Luskentyre – were bought by the Department of Agriculture to provide land for the settlement of crofting families.  In so doing, the ‘Department’ was copying an approach it had used to great effect in Skye in 1923 to create new settlements in North Talisker using the Land Settlement Act 1919.

That initiative had resulted in families – mainly from the Bays of Harris and also from Lewis – moving to 68 newly created crofts in the area, thereby establishing a population of 400 people where for over a century there had been none.  Many of the Harris folk crossing the Minch in 1923 would have been descendants of the generation cleared from the fertile machair of West Harris to the rock-strewn landscape of the Bays a century earlier. There’s a certain poignance in that.

Back across the Minch, it was as ‘Department’ crofting estates that West Harris remained for the rest of the 20th century.

But by the first decade of the 21st century the pattern of land ownership in the Western isles was beginning to change.

In 2003 the 25,900 hectare North Harris Estate was bought by the community.

That was followed in 2006 by the 37,635 hectare South Uist Estate coming into community ownership.

And in 2007 by the 22,260 hectare Galson Estate in Lewis.

Each of these buyouts was motivated by the idea that the communities pursuing them could best shape their own futures by owning the land on which they lived.  And a major part of that has been about ensuring that there are more people living on the land and prospering from it.

That’s hardly surprising, given that between 1951 and 2001 the population of Harris fell by over half from 3,991 to 1,984 people.

Increasing the population has certainly been a driving force behind community ownership of West Harris.

Back in 2010, after – I think it’s fair to say – a fairly challenging buyout process using the 1997 Transfer of Crofting Estates Act, Murdo Mackay, the Trust’s Chair, outlined the vision for West Harris under community ownership.  He said:

“We want to promote Harris as a great place to live and work and we hope to get more families into the area and create new crofts and bring currently under-used land into production. We are very excited about the fact that control of our own land will breathe new life into the community and encourage people to set up homes and raise families.”

 Well, you’ve certainly done that!

In 2010 there was no affordable housing in West Harris; one of the biggest problems facing any island community. Now four affordable house plots have been sold for private builds and there are ten properties, either already built or under construction in collaboration with Hebridean Housing Partnership.

In 2010 there were no business units to let.  Now there are eight business units and one office for lease across three sites.  They’re all occupied.

There are new tourism facilities generating income for the community.  Seven Campervan hook-ups; five camping spots, and toilet and shower facilities.

There’s new infrastructure.  Pontoons.  Renewable energy generated by wind turbines and a hydro scheme.  All delivering environmental benefits for the community and, ultimately, the planet.

There’s Talla Na Mara, this amazing community building we’re privileged to be sitting in tonight.   A fantastic asset for the community in all sorts of social, economic and cultural ways.

There are more jobs.  The Trust employs six members of staff and the restaurant here in Talla Na Marra has created eight seasonal jobs.  And there’s the employment supported through the business space the Trust provides.

All of these things have combined to make West Harris a better place in which to live and, increasingly, to work.

Most preciously of all, there are now more people living here.

Back in 2010 the resident population of West Harris was 119 folk.  There was only one child under 5 years of age living in the community.

Incredibly, that population has risen to 152 people in just 10 years. There are now seven children under 5 and twenty-two people aged under 18 living here.   And there are ambitions to increase the resident population still further by the end of this year.

Now, we’re all Hebrideans, by birth or inclination.  And we’re not much given to shouting our successes from the rooftops.

But permit me – if you will – to break with that tradition just this once.

Because what the West Harris Trust has achieved over the last 10 years of community ownership is quite simply remarkable.  There’s really no other way of describing it.

And plans are afoot for much more to come: renovation of the school building; additional campervan hook-ups; an extension to Talla Na Mara; more affordable housing; fibre optic broadband; and a community share offer.

That’s an impressively bold agenda completely in keeping with the ambition the Trust has shown since 2010 for the betterment of the community.

Opponents of community ownership – they do still exist, unfortunately – often recite the mantra that it’s how land is used, not who owns it, that counts.

Strange, then, that the Lairds should seem so reluctant to be rid of their estates if ownership is so inconsequential!

Of course, land ownership and land use are inextricably linked in shaping communities’ prospects, as the history of West Harris through the centuries demonstrates so well.

Yet here we are in the Scotland of 2020, still with one of the most concentrated patterns of private landownership in the world.

Most of rural Scotland is privately owned and half of that privately-owned land is estimated to be in the hands of about 400 owners.

I don’t think that sort of land monopoly is a healthy situation for Scotland to be in.

By comparison, the amount of land in community ownership is tiny; 209,810 hectares.  That’s less than 3% of the total of Scotland’s rural land.

Remarkably,  over two thirds of the land in community ownership in Scotland is located here in the Western Isles.

And the roll-call of community landowners keeps on growing: Stornoway; North Harris; Galson; South Uist; West Harris; Carloway; Barvas; Pairc; and Keose Glebe.

All places where community ownership is seen as a normal way of doing things.

Places that will hopefully soon be joined by the Bays of Harris and Great Bernera as community-owned estates.

You’ve shown here in West Harris how decades of decline can be reversed when a community takes ownership of the soil (and machair) beneath its feet.

How strong community leadership, vision, commitment and partnership can deliver huge benefits to an ever-growing community by virtue of owning the land.

So I think there’s much that other communities in Scotland – both rural and urban – can learn from your experience of delivering genuinely transformative change in this glorious place you call home.

West Harris has travelled about as far away from the dead hand of landlordism as it’s possible to get. And you’ve made that journey without leaving.

There’s a tender beauty in that achievement that I suspect Robert Burns himself would have appreciated.

Here’s to the road ahead!